World Food Day was recently observed around the world with people everywhere taking the opportunity to organize and act on our obligations to ensure “The Right to Food.” Here in the United States, the Right to Food is as relevant as anywhere, especially in light of our recent imported food safety crisis that is causing many citizens to question their grocery purchases.
What’s fueling this threat to our high quality food supply? Some are scapegoating China. Others blame the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency responsible for inspections. But few realize that our current NAFTA-style trade agreements – you may be surprised to learn – are about more than wages and tariffs. These thousand-page agreements are actually giving corporations special rights that compromise our health and safety, while giving a raw deal to small farmers and fishers the world over.
The fact is that our trade agreements (FTAs) contain rules that put limits on U.S. inspection and safety standards, while simultaneously increasing the quantity of food imported. Even as evidence of this reckless system continues to surface, the Bush Administration is demanding that Congress approve more FTAs that further extend these rules.
Nowadays, the vast majority of food that ends up on your dinner plate has never been inspected. Our FTA rules are based on the policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the main goal of which is to increase the volume and speed of trade between countries without regard for fairness or safety. This is accomplished by prohibiting higher rates of inspection on imports even from countries with deficient food safety standards.
Rather than raise the food safety bar with pending trade agreements, the Bush administration chose to lock in these detrimental trade rules and expand the threat to our food safety in several ways.
First, the pending FTAs will set up committees to speed up the flow of imports of meat and poultry products, even if they do not meet U.S. safety standards. Once these so-called regulatory determinations are achieved, products to be imported into a country must meet only the standards of the exporting country – not those of the importing country.
Second, the FTAs will expand food imports into the U.S. Take seafood. Already, Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea (all our pending FTA partners) are among the top exporters of seafood – particularly shrimp – to the U.S. market. Peru captures more fish than any other country in the world, save China (which has over 47 times Peru’s population), so under the Peru agreement seafood imports will likely skyrocket.
The proposed FTAs will also give corporations or their representatives registered in Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea extraordinary rights to challenge U.S. food safety laws if they believe such laws undermine their FTA-granted foreign investor rights, as NAFTA has already done in the case of Canada.
The FTAs stand to further weaken a global food safety system already badly in need of repair. While the amount of food on U.S. dinner plates that is imported has doubled since NAFTA and the WTO went into effect, the FDA only inspects less than one percent of imported food – down from 8 percent in the mid 90s. And while 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, with substantial and increasing health risks from eating seafood, the FDA inspects only 1.93 percent of seafood imports.
U.S. food safety is a trade problem, mired in a trade model that prioritizes increasing the volume of traded food over citizens’ safety or producers’ fair prices. To address the imported food safety crisis, Congress must start by opposing the Bush Administration’s agenda to implement more trade agreements that further increase the threat of dangerous imports. This week especially, we must insist that our representatives reject extension of NAFTA’s rules to Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea, putting an end to the race-to-the-bottom in food safety standards.